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For whom would bin Laden vote?

David Frum wouldn't bite. On Monday, writing for National Review Online, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush called the surprising outcome of the Spanish election a "mighty victory" for terrorism. On Tuesday, he was back in NRO, writing, "For decorum's sake, Senator Kerry refrained from crowing over the Spanish result yesterday. But I doubt he will be able to restrain himself for long." But on Tuesday afternoon, standing just a few feet away following a talk at Harvard's Kennedy School, Frum demurred when I asked him if he saw any parallels between the Spanish and American election campaigns.

Referring to the victory that voters handed to Spain's Socialist Party which, like an estimated 90 percent of the Spanish public, opposes Spain's participation in the war in Iraq Frum told me, "Their decision has created incentives for Al Qaeda that are absolutely terrifying." The danger, he said, is that terrorists will think they can influence elections in other pro-US democracies, such as Britain, Italy, and Japan.

Well, if the terrorists care who wins in other countries, wouldn't they care who wins in the US? "Whether they care is unclear. What outcome they would prefer is unclear," Frum responded. The difference, he explained, is that Al Qaeda wants to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies, and carrying out terrorist acts to help anti-American political parties is one way to do that.

Now, I'm not a mind-reader. But Frum has given every indication of being someone who believes Al Qaeda would prefer John Kerry to Bush. Earlier on Tuesday, for instance, he said he saw Kerry as someone who, as president, would find it "very, very painful" to be at odds with our European allies, and who is uncomfortable with defining terrorism "as a military problem." In his NRO piece on Tuesday, Frum closed with this: "And if the idea ever takes hold that al Qaeda is planting bombs with a view above all to defeating George W. Bush.... Well let's just say that even Senator Kerry, much as he delights in collecting the endorsements of foreign leaders real and imaginary, would very much prefer to do without Osama bin Laden's." Then, too, Frum is a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq, which Kerry voted for but whose prosecution he has bitterly criticized.

What this all adds up to, in the Frum view of the world, is one thing: A vote for Kerry is a vote for terrorism. Only he dares not say it, at least not quite so explicitly, not at Harvard, not in front of all those liberals.

The subject of Frum's talk, "Whose Side Are You On? The Media in the War on Terror," dealt with the familiar media-ethics issue of whether a journalist especially in a time of war should ever place the needs of his country over the imperatives of his or her profession. Frum's answer: most definitely yes. "A journalist is first and foremost a citizen," he said.

In the abstract it might be possible to agree with Frum. His specifics, though, revealed some serious limitations in his thinking. For instance, the subject turned to the Vietnam War, as these things usually do. Frum's view was that the media, after having been lied to for too many years, went from being "way too optimistic" before 1969 to "way too pessimistic" after, even though the situation for the US had begun to improve. Frum called such cynicism "one of the reasons that the Vietnam War was lost." Yet in expressing such a view, Frum missed entirely the most essential critique: that Vietnam wasn't ours to lose, and that we had immorally (even if our original motives were idealistic) inserted ourselves into a civil war that was none of our business.

Similarly, Frum spoke of the disconnect between the pessimistic media view of what's going on in postwar Iraq and the more hopeful reports being sent back by many Americans on the ground, including US troops. The "cumulative" impact of such reporting, Frum warned, can lead to the "demoralization of the population" the American population, that is.

Well, yes, we deserve an accurate picture of what's happening in Iraq today, and to the extent that the media are painting an unduly negative picture, they ought to stop. But again, Frum is skimming the surface and eliding the more basic questions the most crucial of which is why we went to war at a time when there were UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, no-fly zones over much of the country, and economic sanctions in place. Frum said he believes it would be "patriotic" for a journalist to expose the flaws in a weapons system. To borrow what one of his questioners asked him, isn't it equally patriotic to expose the flaws in a foreign policy?

In an informal back-and-forth that followed the main event, Frum was asked how he could defend the war given that Iraq apparently had no weapons of mass destruction, and given that there were no ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

"It's hard to say that after 3/11," Frum replied, referring to the terrorist attacks in Madrid. He's right. The attacks have all the appearance of having been carried out by Al Qaeda in retaliation for Spain's sending troops to Iraq. But Frum surely knows and this is a point that Retired General Wesley Clark, among others, has made over and over that Bush's war transformed a secular dictatorship into a haven for Islamist terrorists. We will be dealing with the implications of that for at least a generation.

Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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